Some Motifs and Sources for Lord of the Rings

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[page 125] SOME MOTIFS AND SOURCES FOR LORD OF THE RINGS by SANDRA L. MIESEL {Title art: The previous title and byline are printed in a stylized font that warps and curves the letters for aesthetic effect.} J.R.R. Tolkien's _Lord of the Rings_ is a superbly effective subcreation, depicting a totally self-consistent Secondary World which offers the Primary World recovery, refuge, and consolation. It evokes that primordial longing for simplicity and oneness with nature which Eliade calls "nostalgia for Paradise."1 As a perfect Secondary World, Middle Earth has its own traditions, legends, and histories -- some richly detailed, some tantalisingly @tantalizingly@ vague. From what materials has this World been fashioned? Hypothetical sources include history, anthropology, and a variety of mythologies. Generally, Tolkien mines history for cultural correlations rather than facts.2 For example, Gondor's capital, Minas Tirith, is subtly reminiscent of Byzantium. Both the "Tower of Guard" and the "City Guarded by God" are beleagured @beleaguered@ citadels of venerable transplanted cultures, glorious seats of empire in exile. This is not to say that Minas Tirith _represents_ Byzantium but that the author has employed historical associations to elicit reader response. The geography of Middle Earth's principal continent is vaguely like that of Western Europe and the philological and cultural relationships between its races are patterned on those of the British Isles. Schematically: the elves are the Romans, the Dunedain the Romanised @Romanized@ Celts, the Northerners the non-Romanised @Romanized@ Celts, the Wild Men the pre-Celtic aborigines, the Rohirrim the Anglo-Saxons (by extension, the other Nordic elements as well), and the hobbits late mediaeval English yoemen. The last correlation is re-enforced by the dating of the Shire Calendar.3 Some of Tolkien's most pervasive symbolism is rooted in cultural anthropology. There are traces of primitive vegetation worship in the connotations of locale and season. The Ringbearers' odyssey from the fertile Shire to desolate Mordor is a journey into the Wasteland, a passage through the Dark Night of the Soul. Frodo, like the Fisher-King, suffers wounds [page 126] SANDRA MIESEL Climate and terrain worsen in lands fallen under the Shadow. Evil presences infiltrate the forests and Saruman defiles the Shire. The triumph of goodness heals the land's afflictions and fruitfulness returns spectacularly in The Year of Great Plenty. The quest takes place within the fall and winter seasons, times when the power of wickedness was felt to be at its height. Is it just an artful coincidence that Sauron falls on a date corresponding to March 25, the Christian Feast of the Annunciation? The inability of common orcs and trolls to stand sunlight and Sauron's power to darken the sky are solar myth characteristics of evil. Arwen and Aragorn celebrate their marriage after sunset to purge night time of its former grim associations. Tolkien also makes extensive use of tree symbolism, one of the world's oldest and most universal motifs. The tree is the image of the cosmos, of absolute reality, of eternal renewal. It is the centre and support of the universe, the means of communication with divinity. It signifies life and may be mystically bound up with the fate of a specific person. Thus the White and Golden Trees were once the joy of Valinor and their destruction the Great Enemy's primal sin. (Notice that minions of both Sauron and Saruman wantonly destroy many trees.) From the first White Tree sprang a line of living talismans for the Edain Kings, both in Numenor and Gondor. Their royal banner bore this device. But at the time of the story, Gondor's Tree was withered. Aragorn interprets the unexpected discovery of a new sapling as a favourable omen for his wedding. For centuries this seed had lain unsprouted on a barren mountainside just as Aragorn's forebears had long hidden in the wild. This Triad of Tree, King, and Nation, interdependent in their vitality, is but another expression of popular vegetation beliefs, This correlates with the Grail legends and their antecedents. Trees are also held in great reverence in the Shire. The hobbits' Party Tree might be called a "secular" counterpart of the Numenorean emblem. Replanting trees is the keynote of the Shire's restoration. Vegetation imagery is also prominent in Tolkien's use of specific mythological motifs. The very concept of discrete, adjoining "circles of the world" recalls the Nine Worlds linked by the cosmic tree, Yggdrasill. Norse community ritual life often revolved about sacred groves. The high-seat pillars in Viking halls were carven in semblance of Thor's oak and were scarcely less revered than that holy tree itself. As Aeneas bore his household gods from burning Troy, the refugee settlers of Iceland brought their precious ancestral pillars from Norway.4 Likewise the fathers of the Dunedain carried a seedling of the White Tree to Middle Earth from sunken Numenor. In the most primitive Norse myths, gods5 and heroes came from Paradise beyond the sea and returned thence when their missions were accomplished. This recalls the elves' migrations. Also consider the eschatological similarities. At Ragnarok, evil would be defeated, but Asgard and the old order would perish. Only the gods' sons would survive to guide humanity [page 127] MOTIFS AND SOURCES FOR LORD OF THE RINGS Likewise in _Lord of the Rings_, Sauron passes away but so does all the ancient magic of Middle Earth. Aragorn, descendant of elves and kings is charged with the care of the changed world. The terms Middle Earth and Elvenhome obviously come from Migard @Midgard@ and Alfheim. Gimli is the name of Asgard's gold-roofed hall of righteousness. Could Frodo's name be derived from the Norse _fror_, meaning "wise"· or "fruitful"? It would seem most appropriate. Compare the One Ring to the Ring of the Nibelungen and Aragorn's reforged sword Anduril to Siegfried's Gram. Smaug, the greedy dragon in _The Hobbit_, is near kin to Fafnir. Nordic legends tell of werebears (_berserkr_), barrow wights (_draugr_), and ghastly armies of the dead. The passage of Aragorn's party through the Paths of the Dead is strikingly like this description of a journey to the Norse Tartarus: It was leave the sun and stars behind, to journey down into chaos and at last to pass into a land where no light was and where darkness reigned eternally.6 The sun was feminine, the moon masculine to the Norse, Finns, and Baltic Slavs, just as to the inhabitants of Middle Earth. The Slavs connected the celestial bodies with trees of gold and silver and identified the earthly sea with the heavenly ocean. The latter motif is echoed in the elvish legend of Earendil's voyage. To the Finns, white trees were sacred and their shamans climbed these trees to commune with the spirit world. The wizard's ability to speak the language of animals and Gandalf's transfiguration are shamanistic phenomena. The female Valar, Elbereth Gilthoniel, sower of stars, is reminiscent of the worldweaving Finnish' goddess, Ilmatar. Their hero Ilmarinen apparently lends his name to Valinor's mountain Ilmarin and the names of other Kalevalan characters, Lemminkainen and Vainomoinen, would not sound out of place in _Lord of the Rings_.7 Tolkien's Undying Lands in the Western Sea resemble the Immortal Isles of Celtic fable.8 refuges @Refuges@ of gods and privileged mortals, primaeval sources of wisdom and poetry. These places of perpetual feasting, which knew neither death nor grief, were quite numerous: one hundred fifty are mentioned in _The Voyage of Bran_. Among these was Falga, the Land of Promise, with its singing silver tree: Lovely land throughout the world's age, On which the many blossoms fall.9 The Welsh version was Annwfn, the Not-World, prototype of the Arthurian Avalon. Entrance into the Happy Otherworld was by invitation only, just as in the trilogy. Time is compressed for mortals visiting Elysium as it is for the Ringbearers in Lothlorien. This sojourn in a forest where the Elder Days live on is also a penetration into Sacred Time, the mythic time of the beginnings. It suggests the joys of Elvenhome across the sea. The power, beauty, and immortality of the elves in _Lord of the Rings_ are like those of the ancient Irish divinities the _aes sidhe_. But their personalities are based on Spencer's @Spenser's@ Elfe Lords rather than flamboyant Celtic models. [page 128] SANDRA MIESEL Elrond is no Finn mac Coul nor Galadriel a Maeve. Accounts of marriages between men and immortals and other minglings of the natural and the preternatural feature as prominently in the Celts' traditions as in Tolkien. Yet any search for precedents and analogies as an end in itself is sterile. Knowledge alone does not insure artistry. The beauty of Tolkien's achievement lies in the skilful @skillful@ way he has interwoven so many motifs, making Middle Earth gloriously alive and splendidly real. FOOTNOTES 1) Mircea Eliade, _Patterns in Comparative Religion_, trans. Rosemary Sheed (Cleveland, 1963), 383. 2) One exception, his gruesome image of the Dead Marshes, echoes a passage in the sixth century _Origin and Deeds of the Gods_ by Jordanes. (See J.W. Thompson and E.W. Johnson, An Introduction to Medieval Europe_ (New York, 1937), 78.) 3) Frodo's journey occurs in 1418-1419, Shire Reckoning. Tolkien admits the hobbits were partly inspired by his Midland neighbors. 4) The historical event and the literary incident reflect an underlying need to remain in contact with a totemic _centre_, a concrete manifestation of the sacred. Cf. Eliade, _op_. _cit_., 369. 5) Vanir, or nature deities, not the later and more familiar Aesir-folk. 6) Saxo Grammaticus, _Gesta Danormum_, trans. O. Elton (London, 1893), book vii, p.344. 7) The similarities between the elvish language and Finnish are well known but lie outside the scope of this essay. 8) The Greek analogues were the Islands of the Blessed, of the Hesperides, of Calypse. However, the Celtic Happy Otherworld was not always located on an island. It could be under the sea, inside a hollow hill, or under the earth (like Virgil's Elysian Fields). Parallels between the Greek and Celtic traditions are due to their common Aryan heritage and not direct contact. 9) _The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal_, ed. and trans. Kuno Meyer (London, 1895), v. 6.

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